At Climate Resistance, we are quite often to be found making connections between environmentalism and the War on Terror. So we were a little surprised to find an environmentalist (and it’s probably fairly safe to assume that an environment correspondent at the Guardian is an environmentalist) apparently doing the same today.
The line that Suzanne Goldenberg draws between the respective wars on terror and CO2 is, however, rather different from our own. The story’s headline gives it away:
Serving 22 years: the environmentalist who fell victim to US anti-terror laws
In fact, it gave away so much that the paper replaced the headline in the online edition with:
Activist or terrorist? Mild-mannered eco-militant serving 22 years for arson
The Guardian’s moral compass points only to melting ice caps. The title may have changed, but it is still clear that they can’t tell the difference between an ‘activist or terrorist’, or seem to think that being an ‘activist’ qualifies an arsonist for special treatment.
The explosive fire Mason and Ambrose set at Michigan State University on 31 December 1999 caused nearly $1m (£680,000) of damage to buildings and equipment, but no death or injuries. The target was the office of the director of a genetically modified crop research programme into moth-resistant food crops for Africa, funded by the US Agency for International Development and the biotechnology company Monsanto.
Marie Mason is clearly an activist, and probably a terrorist. The Guardian doesn’t seem to think that one can be both. It is is as though sympathy for the ends, if not the means, is enough to transform violence into mere protest.
The story hinges on the claim that the sentence is too stiff:
However, Mason’s lawyer, John Minock, who filed an appeal against the sentence last week, argues that 22 years is excessively harsh. Mason got a much longer sentence than several militants recently convicted of setting fire to logging camps and vehicles in Oregon and Washington states – including Stanislas Meyerhoff who received 13 years for setting 11 fires and causing $30m in damage.
And that the reason it is too stiff is that ‘the courts have used domestic terrorism laws to stiffen the punishment for politically inspired violence’.
Mason is a prime example. “We are definitely seeing more severe sentences post-9/11, no doubt about it,” said Heidi Boghosian, the director of the National Lawyers Guild. “We have seen a trend of using the terrorist label and federalising a lot of criminal activities that would have gotten a far less stringent sentence before.”
Lauren Regan, an Oregon lawyer who defends environmental militants, calls it the “green scare”.
We find it hard to find sympathy for Mason, however. And her complaints that her sentence is harsh need to be seen in the context, not of sentences passed on other ‘activists’, or ‘terrorists’, but to other people convicted of arson.
It was only last Thursday that the Guardian was reporting on a Californian jury’s recommendation of the death penalty for a man who started a series of wildfires that resulted in the deaths of five firefighters:
Of course, Mason didn’t cause any deaths, but that is owed to luck, not design. She may claim that she didn’t intend to hurt anybody, but the arsonist loses the right to make that claim when they strike their matches against the matchbox. Mason complains that the harsh sentence is owed to the fact that ‘the government is trying to send a message’. But isn’t that what she was trying to do when she was, harshly, trying to assert her message by burning stuff to the ground, and risking lives? Harsh messages are answered with harsh messages.
If this were any other violent criminal, Goldenburg would not have a story. It is because Goldenburg and her employers are sympathetic to the aims that these perpetrators of this mundane act of destruction claimed to have in mind. But what did they really have in mind?
No sooner was Mason’s partner, Ambrose, caught, than he confessed, and allowed the authorities to pursue her. Some kind of solidarity. Contrast that with perpetrators of political violence, or even just political prisoners elsewhere in the world. That such a lack of honour exists between these arsonists surely indicates the hollowness of their cause. Ambrose acts in his self interest, to reduce his sentence, and Mason appeals that the sentence was too harsh. Clearly, neither of them really have the courage of their convictions that political prisoners in the past have possessed. They don’t bravely face their sentences. They apologise, and ask to be treated nicely.
Such a lack of conviction surely emphasises the nihilism of deep ecologists. Behind bars, such nihilism loses all its potency. Apart from those hurt by their actions, few on the outside will remember them. There are no movements on the outside, waiting for their return, to rejoin the struggle for liberation. Mason and her ilk have not campaigned for liberation. The conflagrations they caused were nothing more than the selfish acts of people lost in the world, who have comprehensively failed to touch other people with their message, and to establish a movement. This is the philosophy that the Guardian believes muddies the distinction between an ‘activist’ and a ‘terrorist’.
Perhaps Mason is neither an activist or a terrorist. She is like any other sad criminal, whose confusion about the world is expressed as a desire to destroy it. Like Raymond Lee Oyler, her acts are hard to explain. It is bizarre then, that the Guardian thinks that it’s the harsh sentence that needs explaining.
To those in Mason’s home city of Detroit who know her, her elevation to the ranks of America’s most dangerous criminals came as a shock. A fixture in activist circles, she was bright and charming, but unfocused – a woman who had an advanced degree in chemistry but lived near the poverty line.
The Guardian’s reporting on this issue is, as ever, informed not by an understanding of why it is wrong to set fire to things to get your message heard, nor by coherent ideas about jurisprudence… It’s not ‘fair’, because Mason was ‘nice’. It is informed by the same nihilistic and disorientated philosophy that afflicts Ambrose and Mason.
We have argued previously that environmentalism is an ideology. Indeed it is, in the sense that it wants to reorganise the world around its principles, by force and coercion if necessary. But those principles are confused and arbitrary because at its heart, there exists a void.
CR commenter Robert Wood commented on our recent post about James Hansen’s understanding of ‘democracy’ that Hansen ‘thinks he is one of Plato’s philosopher kings’. But the strangest thing about Hansen’s rise is that he has been crowned by nihilists. The argument for the philosopher king is being made by ignorant philistines. It is their own empty outlook they are evincing, not their commitment to a particular philosophy, or even the supremacy of the philosophical method. They want to be told what to do, how the world should be organised, and what ‘science’ says is right. This is because they cannot work it out for themselves. Environmentalism, whether it is setting fire to laboratories (so much for science then) or campaigning for laws to restrict human freedom, is a desperate search for meaning, in the same way that setting fire to things is a desperate attempt to assert control over a confusing world.
So environmentalism, in both its extreme expression of igniting fires, and it’s more mundane expression of elevating climate scientists to moral and political heroes and saviours, and its downright banal defence of criminal insanity in the press, shares just one thing: nothing.